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Bob Hope: 100 Years of Memories

Bob Hope turns 100 today. If there's a joke in there somewhere -- and you know there is -- Bob Hope would have one to tell. Hope entertained audiences for nearly every decade of the 20th century in a career spanning stage, radio, movies and television.

As NPR's Susan Stamberg reports, Hope, "the quintessentially American entertainer" was born in England. His real name was Leslie and his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when he was five. As a teenager, he discovered a talent for singing, dancing and telling jokes -- and he started touring in vaudeville, where he teamed with a variety of partners.

Along the way, Hope developed the concept of the comic monologue, which he honed on the vaudeville circuit. In 1933, he landed on Broadway. Hollywood came calling a few years later. When Jack Benny turned down a role in The Big Broadcast of 1938, Paramount picked Hope to do the film. Hope sang a duet with Shirley Ross that won an Academy Award and became his theme song -- "Thanks for the Memory."

He became a national star when NBC offered him his own radio program, The Pepsodent Show, in 1938. Radio was a challenge, Stamberg notes. "In vaudeville, Hope could tell the same jokes, for months on end, because his audiences were different. But weekly radio demanded fresh material," she says.

So Hope hired a staff of writers. Mort Lachman, who worked with Hope for more than 25 years, remembers him as a demanding boss. "When you worked for Hope, you gave him your life," Lachman says. "Every hour of every day belonged to him and he called you anytime, day or night."

In 1941, Hope began a project that would become the hallmark of his career -- entertaining the troops. His radio producer asked whether he would do a broadcast from March Field, a California air base. "The audience was so fantastic that we decided to keep doing it," Hope said.

World War II turned Bob Hope from comedian to American icon, Stamberg says.

John Lahr, who profiled Hope in the New Yorker magazine, says, "What the war did for him was put his comedy in a heroic context, make it seem like it had a mission." Hope's comedy had the ability to "take people out of their woes -- which is, in itself, no easy task."

Hope entertained the troops from the Second World War through the 1991 Persian Gulf War. His humor was usually easy-going. It touched on politics, but rarely took sides. During the Vietnam War, however, he became identified as a hawk. Lahr says Hope was the first topical comedian: "He did what Leno and Letterman now do."

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Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.

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